The Siege of the Lost Battalion-


L. Wardlaw Miles
The Siege of the Lost Battalion
General Robert Alexander


OCTOBER 27, 1918

COMMANDER, 77TH Division

DURING the operations incident to the great offensive launched by the Americans and their Allies On 26 September, 1918; an offensive which, in its outcome, marked the end of the Great War; there occurred an incident which was given much notice by the press at the time and which (through an unfortunate employment of phraseology) has become somewhat misunderstood among the general public. Reference is made to the situation of the force commanded by (then) Major Chas. W. Whittlesey, 308th Infantry, 77th Division A. E. F., and the experiences of that command during the days 2-7 October, inclusive, 1918. Before undertaking to give any detailed account of that episode it may be well to say that it is believed that, considering as a group the 900-odd officers who made up the commissioned personnel of the 77th Division, no superior similar group was in service under the American flag anywhere. Composed in much the greater part of prominent business and professional men of New York City; nearly all of them graduates of the first two Plattsburg Camps; it would be difficult indeed to find any equal number of men of higher character, more extended mental vision or keener devotion to the service upon which they were engaged. In the opinion of their former Division Commander they made up the best group of Divisional officers then in Service. A misapprehension brought about by newspaper phraseology may be also corrected here:-the designation of the Lost Battalion had no foundation in fact whatsoever. Colonel Whittlesey's command went, under competent orders, to the objective set for it in common with the other front-line elements of the Division, performed the functions expected of it upon arrival at that objective, and most gallantly held its position in the face of a powerful enemy until the other organizations of the Division found it possible to join it on that objective. There never was, not for one moment, any Lost Battalion, and the designation does injustice to the gallant officers and men who made up the command.

The position reached on the evening of October 1st by the front-line troops of the Division touched, on the right, the intersection of the Divisional boundary with the east and west coordinate 276 and the north and south coordinate 298. Thence our line ran a little south of west, the front of the 153d Infantry Brigade being on the southerly slope of the ridge known as the Bois de la Naza (Map, Foret d'Argonne, 1-20,000). From the westerly extremity of the Naza ridge our line, along the front of the 154th Infantry Brigade, ran, as reported, nearly due west. It was reported, however, that the right flank of the 154th Brigade had not kept pace during the day (of the 1st) with the left flank of the 153d-whether that gap really existed or whether it was closed up during the night 1-2 is not known, but it seems, at best, doubtful. None of the reports then or since received are clear on that point, which, after all, is but of minor importance. Along the fronts of the two Brigades, still fully deployed with Battalions from all four of the Infantry Regiments in the attacking line, were, on the right the ridge of the Bois de la Naza, on the left the unnamed ridge which extends into the Foret proper from the west, the partially completed trenches thereon being an extension of and linked up with the works about the Pallette Pavilion. The attacking line thus had in its front positions of considerable natural strength; positions which had been improved by trenches, wire and machine gun nests. The flanks of those positions were strongly covered; on the east, extending into and dominating the valley of the Aire, is the bastion of the Chene Tondu; on the west the Pallette Pavilion, thoroughly intrenched, covers with its fire the approaches down the valley of the Aisne by which the French were to launch their attack. While these positions of the Chene Tondu and the Pallette (respectively in the sectors of the 28th American and the 1st Dismounted Cavalry Division, French) were open to effective Artillery preparation the extensions of those positions which the 77th Division was to attack (being in the dense thickets of the Foret prober) were not open to observation and, consequently, could not be brought under effective fire: the difficulties of the situation confronting the 77th Division cannot be exaggerated.

Field Order 49, 77th Division, directing the operations for the morning of the 2d October, was signed and issued at 21.30 H on the night of the 1st and was immediately started out to the Infantry Brigades. That Order called upon the Division to attack in cooperation with the troops on its right and left at 6.30 H, to advance to the east and west road running through the Foret via Apremont-les Viergettes-Binarville, to dig in along that road and to exploit the ground to the new front by strong patrols. Under ordinary circumstances of terrain and available roads the Order should have reached the Infantry Brigades within but little more than an hour after leaving Division Headquarters, but in the Forest all standards of comparison failed and it was probably about midnight before the Infantry Brigade commanders got out their own orders for the attack; the Artillery Brigadier, being immediately with the Division Commander, received the Order immediately upon its issue. It is proper to say here that during the entire period of the operations of the 77th Division in the Foret

(26 Sept.-10 Oct.) the Artillery could give no really effective support to the front-line Infantry; this due to no lack of skill or willingness on the part of the Artillery but to the impenetrable jungle through which the troops were forced to push their way:--no observation was possible and the opposing front lines were always in the closest proximity. It is also desirable to say that all Operation Orders were telephoned in outline to the Brigade Commanders as soon as the determination for the next day's operations was reached, This involved some small risk of the enemy listening in, but not sufficient to counterbalance the value of early information to the Brigade Commanders as to what they were to be expected to accomplish.

The attack opened at the hour set but very little, if anything, was accomplished in the way of an advance during the morning. The 153rd Brigade was. held rigidly in place, its effort to advance costing some slight loss. On our right the attack of the 28th Division which, it was hoped, would carry the Chene Tondu, made no progress that we could appreciate, although a heavy fire was opened on the enemy position. Nothing of more value was accomplished on the left, the fire from the Pallette Pavilion and its contiguous works breaking up the French formations as fast as they attempted to debouch north of Binarville. By about 10.00, H the entire attack had come to a halt with no gain of any value as a result of the effort. The Division Commander, 77th Division, learned of this con-dition of affairs about 11.00, H and, after giving the situation as much thought as the available time permitted, determined to order a resumption of the attack for 13:30 H. That determination was reached because it was believed that we ought to be able to break through the incomplete trench systems in our front and that, if the Division could succeed in the effort and establish itself upon the road which was its objective, (Apre-Mont-les Viergettes-Binarville), the opposition on our flanks at the Chene Tondu and the Pallette would be greatly weakened if it did not at once disappear. The Infantry Brigadiers were therefore directed by the Division Commander in person to launch a vigorous renewal of the attack at the hour designated. Each Infantry Brigade had at its disposal a Regiment Of 75's; immediately at the disposal of the Division Commander was the 306th F. A. and the 247e French (75's). These were also to respond on call from the Infantry. The difficulties in the way of effective Artillery support of the front-line have already been indicated; all that was expected. from this fire was moral rather than material. Had conditions Permitting observation been in our favor, we had disposable ample artillery for the work in hand.

The attack was resumed at the designated hour. Again no progress was made by the 153d Brigade, but on the left matters went a bit better. The terrain and the general situation on that flank deserve consideration.

Running north from the Depot de Machines, which position had been taken by the 307th Infantry after a stiff engagement on 29 September, lies a deep and precipitous ravine, its steep sides covered with dense brushwood forming a practically impassable obstacle between the two banks and the Plateau adjoining the respective crests. This ravine cuts in two what was, at the time, the front to be attacked by the 3o8th Infantry, then commanded by Colonel Cromwell Stacey, an officer of the Regular Army; the Regiment had in its attacking front line its 1st Battalion, commanded by Major Charles W. Whittlesey, before the War and since (until his untimely death) a practicing attorney of prominence in New York City. He had had the advantage of both Plattsburg Camps. The 2d Battalion of the Regiment, which, at the opening of the attack in the early morning (6.30 H) was in immediate support of the attacking line, was commanded by Captain (later Major) George G. McMurtry, a business man of New York City, and likewise, a graduate of Plattsburg. Both were excellent officers. During the operations of the morning hours the support Battalion had closed up on the attacking line to such an extent that when the attack was resumed (at 13.30 H) the two commands were practically fused into one. Both Battalions had elements west of the ravine and thus separated from the movements of the rest of their units; of the 1st Battalion Company " D " was so situated, of the 2d, Company " F. " Attached to each Battalion was a section of machine guns coming respectively from Companies " C " and " D " 306th Machine Gun Battalion. The 3d Battalion of the Regiment was in Brigade reserve; a striking example of what was and is an entirely unnecessary defect in our Infantry organization:--with an organization of two Brigades of Infantry to the Division, each of but two Regiments, it is almost inevitable that the organizations will be broken up immediately upon going into battle. In this case the Regimental Commander was deprived of one-third of the tools with which he is expected to do his work.

When the hour set for the resumption of the attack arrived, the portion of the command on the east of the ravine-Cos. A, B, C, E, G, H and the two sections of machine guns-pushed forward, broke through the enemy's wire, over-ran his opposition and seized and occupied their part of the position which had been designated as the Division's objective for the day. In this advance the command, which went into action with a strength of about 670 officers and men, lost some ninety killed and wounded. Conjectures as to what might have happened are seldom profitable. It may be said, however, that it was unfortunate that the remainder of the 154th Brigade was not at once directed upon the gap broken by Whittlesey's advance and pushed up to the line established by him. Had that been done-and the path seems to have been open until about 9:oo H on the morning of the 3d October-the mission of the Division for the day, would, probably, have been completely fulfilled. During its advance the command captured two enemy officers, twenty-eight other ranks and two heavy machine guns besides inflicting other losses of considerable moment.

The proper strength of the command should have been about 1600 of all ranks had the units been at their maximum; nor could the losses (heavy as they undoubtedly were) incurred during the days of battle since 26 September when the general attack opened, account for the great discrepancy between those actually present and those who should have been there with full ranks. It must be remembered, however, that the Division went into battle something over 2000 short of its complement, and the strength of the Infantry Companies at the opening of the attack was rather below two hundred men. The 308th had also incurred considerable loss in the advance to include October 1st, having been, in common with the other Regiments, continuously in line, but the cause of prime importance for the low strength of the Companies on the 2d was to be found in the extremely difficult character of the terrain over which the Division was operating. In the dense underbrush men became separated from their units and really lost, an enormous number of detachments were required to keep up communication between the elements in front-line and between the front-line and the units in support, and, finally, there is always a certain proportion of men in any organization who, at the crucial moment, find that their heart-action is too feeble to permit their advance in step with the more enterprising. It is well to set forth the truth, no matter how unpalatable, and we must concede that even American troops are not entirely immune to the vice of straggling. The great wonder is, that having in mind the opportunities for concealment in comparative safety, so many reached the front-it is matter for congratulation and some degree of pride.

Reaching the appointed objective the command obeyed its orders, dug itself in on the steep hillside below the road, which runs along a bench on the north wall of the ravine, and pushed patrols forward into the jungle to the north. These quickly coming in contact with the enemy, Major Whittlesey put his forces in posture of defence by establishing his machine gun units on his flanks and by refusing his left flank, thus attempting to cover the direction from which he anticipated such trouble as might come to him from further enterprises of the enemy. His position was about five hundred metres east of the Moulin de Charlevaux, and he occupied it about 19:00 H.

The plan of action agreed upon between the separated elements of the two Battalions (separated by the north and south ravine) was that after reaching the objective along the road, the troops east of the ravine would send back a Company which, by an attack from the rear on the enemy west of the ravine, would assist the two Companies on that flank to come up to the line of the others. Owing, probably, to the lateness of the hour, no attempt was made to carry out that plan on the evening of the 2d. During the advance the usual chain of runner posts had been established; those posts consisted of three or four men each, dug-in at distances of two to three hundred metres. With the command was the usual supply of carrier pigeons with which all attacking Battalions were provided. It is to be observed that with the merging of the two Battalions of the 3o8th in one command, the nearest supporting troops to the attacking group was the Battalion in Brigade Reserve at the Depot de Machines.
The remainder of the front line of the 77th Division failed to make any impression on the resistance in its front. Wittenmyer's Brigade, the 153d, did not move forward an inch, nor did the other Regiment of the 154th Brigade, although commanded at that time by an excellent Colonel, give any indication of an advance to the line established by Whittlesey. No assistance came to us from the troops on our right and left; as before stated, the attacks of the 28th Division on the Cherie Tondu and of the French on La Pallette, initiated with the opening of the attack in the early morning, had broken down completely nor were they renewed within any knowledge of the 77th Division. The two Companies of the 308th west of the ravine made no effort to advance, waiting, apparently, for the expected action of the Company from the (then) northward.

It being fully realized that the left flank of the Division was entirely un-protected, the French being held south of Binarville while the enemy was still in force at La Pallette, the Commanding General of the 154th Brigade was personally directed by the Division Commander to use his Brigade Reserve; the 3d Battalion of the 3o8th, then at the Depot de Machines; while, at the same time the Division reserve on that flank (a Battalion of the 307th, placed in the Ravin Fontaine aux Charmes, just west of La Harazee) was ordered to the Depot and placed at the disposal of the 154th as a Brigade reserve . . . . .

The first information received by the Division Commander indicating anything in the way of serious trouble on our left came in about 2:oo H on October 3d when the Commanding General of the 154th Brigade reported (by phone) that he was quite sure that Whittlesey's chain of runner posts had been cut. It must be confessed that this information did not, at the time, make a very deep impression. Operating as we had been for a week in the depths of an almost impenetrable forest not a day passed but brought with it at least one such report-the situation being almost immediately relieved by the advance of adjacent portions of the line. In this case it was patent that the 153d Brigade seemed to be definitely stopped but it was expected that the 3o7th Infantry-just on the right of the 3o8th-would be able to advance to the line established by Whittlesey either during the night or shortly after the resumption of the attack which had been ordered for daylight of the 3d. As a matter of fact, Captain Holderman's Company (K) of the 307th joined Whittlesey about 9:00 H on that morning. The question is inevitable-if one Company of the 307th could get through without difficulty as this Company, certainly why didn't the remainder of the attacking Battalion of the 3o7th follow suit? To that query no answer has, as yet, been given.

The attack scheduled for the 3d October was attempted by the 153d Brigade in something like an organized body; the 154th seemed to be very much at sea as to the locations of its constituent units. The advance undertaken by the elements of that Brigade followed generally the line traced by Whittlesey's command in its successful attack of the previous day but by the time the advancing troops reached the trench system on the ridge the gap-which that command had tom in the opposing line was reported to be again strongly held, the wire over which he had passed was thoroughly repaired, strengthened and extended to the eastward so as to cover most of the hill south of the ravine of the Ruisseau de Charlevaux. The attack of neither Brigade accomplished anything in the way of breaking through and during the day a pigeon message was received from whittlesey giving his position and asking that support come up to his assistance. It was also learned during the early morning that the reserve Battalion which had been expected to cover his exposed flank was not in position to do so; that information was most decidedly disturbing as it was well known that the French had not advanced and could, consequently, be of no assistance. Most serious consideration was given to the cause for so serious a failure to comply with instructions; it was realized, however, that the darkness of the preceding night and the difficulties thereby inter-posed in the way of a proper disposition of the troops should be factors of weight in any determination of the proper disciplinary steps to be taken and it was resolved to permit the command on that flank to remain as it was for the present although the general situation, as related to that command, was most unsatisfactory.

Some additional consideration of the terrain in the immediate front of the 77th Division will be of assistance in an understanding of what followed during the succeeding days. The apex of the Naza spur is about 1/2 kilometres west of the eastern boundary of the Divisional, sector. Running south of the Naza is the ravine carrying the Ruisseau de Charle-vaux; north of the ridge is that of the Fontaine aux Charmes-.not the brook of the same name which empties into the Biesme near La Harazee. The two streams join at the western end of the Naza spur, the combined stream (then taking the name of the Ruisseau des Bievres or of Charlevaux) continuing in its course a little north of west and passing south of the position occupied by Whittlesey. The ridge running into the Foret from the Pallette position ends just west of the stream junction. As previously stated, both ridges were strongly held against us but the wire, as we later discovered, did not extend entirely across the gap between them.

On this afternoon of the 3d October there was a general conference of the Division Commanders of the 1st Corps with the Corps Commander (Gen'l Liggett) in the course of which we were informed that a general attack of the entire 1st American Army was to be made the following morning; that the salient feature of that attack was to be a drive of the 1st Division northwestward from the direction of Exermont on Fleville and that the French IVe Armee on our left had promised to cooperate by a simultaneous advance. As may be readily, understood the situation of Major Whittlesey and his command was, to his Division Commander, cause for the most lively apprehension. It was known that his rations, even assuming that he actually had with him at the time of his advance on the 2nd the two days' reserve rations required, must be about exhausted; undoubtedly his ammunition must be running low and while there was never the slightest doubt on the part of the Division Commander that he and his command would hold out until the bitter end, at the same time the necessity for his relief was recognized. If the combined attack prom-ised for the morning of the 4th went off, as it was hoped, the prospect for a break-through seemed excellent. It was therefore decided to throw the available weight of the Division to the left flank in the expectation of close cooperation with the French, and the Commanding General of the 154th Brigade who would have the immediate direction of the operation was given full control of the remaining Division reserve: one Battalion of the 307th Infantry and the 3o6th Machine Gun Battalion. The hour set for the attack was 5.30 H; at that time it was still completely dark within the Forest.

Heralded by a tremendous artillery fire from the Corps and Army Artillery with which the Foret was now crowded; all of which was directed on the front to be attacked by the 1st Division; the attack began at the hour fixed. The attack of the 1st Division succeeded, though with heavy loss; no advance was made by any other portion of the line although I was assured by the Corps Chief of Staff that the French had reached Langon! ! This was known to be quite impossible but to make assurance doubly sure Cpt. Klotz, Liaison Officer, and an aide, Lieut. de Coppet, were sent to the French PC with the request that the French Staff send me a map, marked by themselves, showing their actual front line. That map is before you. As a matter of fact no element of the French was at any time north of the road running east from Binarville. De Coppet also reported that an officer at the French PC said he had been to Whittlesey's position during the course of the afternoon:--that, of course, appeared to be incredible nor has there ever been any verification of the statement, although the positions of the left elements of the 77th Division were accurately marked on the map. De Coppet and Klotz had also been instructed to arrange, during this visit, for a combined attack with the French for the following morning, the 5th Oct., and brought back word that such arrangements had been made. Full instructions for the renewed attack were gotten out; the Commanding General, 154th Brigade, was again charged with the execution of the operation, and, after all possible preparation had been made on our side, de Coppet and Klotz were again sent to the French PC to assure as nearly simultaneous action with them as was possible. Our proposed plan was a general attack along the entire Divisional front with the weight of the Division again thrown to the left flank; both Infantry Brigadiers were impressed as fully as was possible with the importance to Whittlesey and his command of the operation, and it was hoped that the result would be all that was expected . . . . .

The advance of the French and the 77th was not a simultaneous movement, the French were repulsed before the 77th got started and the same fate befell the 77th when they finally got under way. The day was a most unsatisfactory one all 'round, and, as the only thing left to do, another attack was arranged for on the early morning of the 6th, again in combination with the French-it succeeded no better than had the others.

You are asked to understand that the Division Commander did not limit his activities to merely ordering attacks; every other possible means were employed to reach Maj. Whittlesey. His position was well-known and the Air Service was called on to convey to him such supplies as was possible. It was found, however, that in the thick underbrush it was impossible to so closely locate the detachment as to permit of the supplies being dropped within their lines; the command therefore was subjected to the trial of seeing the supplies of which they stood so greatly in need, dropped outside their lines, in positions whence it was not practicable to secure them, so closely was the command hemmed in and so deadly the fire which every movement brought down upon them. If one realizes the conditions of practical invisibility from the air of anything on the surface, covered as it was by the dense underbrush, it will be readily under-stood how these efforts of the Air Service were so uniformly unsuccessful. There were no points sufficiently well defined to furnish means of orientation; merely a sea of green with, perhaps, here and there the gleam of water from some brook deep in the recesses of a cavernous ravine. All that the aviators could determine from the air was that they were over the Forest proper, but nothing more as to their actual location. On one occasion a plane, driven down by hostile fire, was able to land behind our front line; the aviators, seeing our men coming up to their assistance, ran into the bushes thinking they were the enemy. The beleaguered troops had their panels out continuously until the last day of the siege but they were never seen from the air. In the course of these efforts we lost two planes and the aviators operating them.

The attack scheduled for the morning of the 6th failed to materialize, the French made no move to carry out their part of the program while our attempted advance gained no ground. The Division Commander was personally on the front at the time and saw the situation for himself. The front of the 153d Brigade was held rigidly in place; while I was there Capt. John B. Benet, Jr., the Brigade Adjutant, was wounded in the course of the attack they were undertaking. Proceeding along our front toward the Depot de Machines, Col. Houghton of the 307th Infantry was encountered on the front line in the vicinity of the stream-junction to which reference has been made; he was on a reconnaissance and the Division Commander accompanied him to where something of a view was obtain-able through the gap between the two ridges. He informed me that the wire was not continuous; that he was endeavoring to get a few men at a time through the opening and that if he could succeed in that effort he believed the result would be to dislodge the enemy. It was evident that care must be exercised in the operation, otherwise an untimely disclosure of our intention would probably attract attention to the gap and we would in all likelihood find it closed in that event. His reasoning seemed to be logical, in view of the existing circumstances, and he was directed to con-tinue the attempt in his own way.

It was this effort of Houghton which ultimately brought immediate relief to the cooped-up Battalion; it is meant that the 77th alone could not have forced the Foret, referred to by Gen'l. Pershing as "impregnable"; undoubtedly the successful attack of the 1st Division, exploited as it was by the 82nd, had relieved the dead-lock in the valley of the Aire; the position of the Chene Tondu was about to be turned and the enemy appreciated the fact that it was about time for him to go. At the same time that withdrawal did not take place until after Whittlesey had been relieved and it is believed that his relief was effected by the unremitting attacks and other efforts in his direction made by his comrades of the 77th. That those efforts had serious opposition to overcome will be evident when it is stated that our attack on the morning of the 7th October cost the 154th Brigade seventy-eight killed and two hundred and thirty-seven wounded. It is not improbable, however, that that attack of the 154th Brigade, attracting the enemy attention toward our left, materially aided Houghton in his effort to filter through the gap in the center. At any rate his advancing patrols gained contact with the right of Whittlesey's command about 21.oo H on the evening of the 7th taking with them the rations and ammunition of which that command was so greatly in, need.

The Division Commander was on the front of his line by a little after daylight on the morning of the 8th, reaching first the 153rd Brigade. It was found that the right of that command had been able to swing forward during the night and that the Apremont-Les Viergettes-Binarville road was passable, although the roar of battle resounded from the jungle to the north and the advance of the Brigade was still being vigorously resisted. Passing along the road the Division Commander finally reached Whittlesey's command; it was found an organized unit and in very good condition; its recent experiences being considered. Of the 670 officers and men with which Whittlesey and McMurtry opened the attack, the effectives on the morning of the 8th numbered but 194.

Of most of the numerous cases of devoted courage demonstrated during the siege of this detachment, it is not possible to speak here; about 10:00 H on the 7th Major Whittlesey received a demand for surrender. It was typewritten, in excellent English, and was dispatched to him by Captain Herman Prinz, the officer commanding the enemy; he had lived some seven years at Spokane, the agent of a German tungsten company. Major Whittlesey's only reply was to take in his Battalion and Company panels which had been displayed up to that time and to fire at the next Boche who showed himself. The panels were taken in by Capt. William J. Cullen, 308th Infty., who was greatly exposed in performing the duty and who earned the D. S. C. by volunteering for the perilous task-Captain Cullen is now a business man in New York City. Major Whittlesey and Captain McMurtry were recommended for the Medal of Honor; I am glad to say that both received it in due time. I was able to promote both of them immediately and did so. There were a number of other awards of the D. S. C. to subordinate officers and men of the command. The command itself, after resting in Division reserve for two days, resumed its place in front line in its proper turn for that duty and performed gallant service throughout the remainder of the campaign, as it had before.
Camp Lewis,
15 Dec. 1922.
Website by SchoolMessenger Presence. © 2019 West Corporation. All rights reserved.